God's Word is usually comforting, but to a person whose spouse doesn't share the faith, the words in 2 Corinthians 6:14-15 are heartbreaking: "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? … What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?"
Obviously, you love your spouse. But the deep chasm of differing moral values, misunderstanding, rejection, and loneliness make marriage even more challenging than most. For the last seven years, I've found myself caught in this divine dilemma: torn between the love of my life and the Lover of my soul.
Brian (not his real name) and I were married 13 years and had two children when I accepted Jesus as my Savior. While being drawn intimately to the Lord, I experienced joy and excitement like I'd never known. My lifestyle began to change as I lived 2 Corinthians 5:17: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old is gone, the new has come!"
But to Brian, something seemed fundamentally wrong with this Scripture! He liked the old creation, and I morphed into someone he didn't know. He believed in God, but felt I had taken "this thing" way too far. My weekdays became interspersed with Bible studies and ministry meetings, and weekends were filled with participation in church services. My taste in movies (among other things) changed, and I no longer wanted to drink alcohol or be with friends who did. In addition, I claimed to be in love with someone else! His name was Jesus, and to my husband, he seemed like a real threat to our marriage.
Brian began to feel abandoned and soon his justifiable feelings of jealousy and loneliness were projected as anger and resentment. He criticized my new friends, church activities, and books I read. Rejection hit every time he changed the radio from my favorite Christian station, and I felt guilt-ridden whenever I tithed or said "yes" to ministry opportunities. I began to lose respect for my husband and the empty places in our marriage grew until any attempt to communicate was strained. We were definitely unequally yoked.
Historically, the biblical illustration of being unequally yoked dates back to the time of Moses (Deuteronomy 22:10). A yoke is a wooden frame by which two draft animals are joined at the neck for working together. If animals of unequal size or strength are yoked together, the yoke will weigh heavily on one animal while choking the other.
Instead of pulling smoothly and painlessly together, the animals strain against the yoke as it pinches and burdens, making their labor strenuous.
And strenuous is exactly what our marriage became.
Though Brian didn't see the need to join me, I sought help through Christian counseling.
"I don't think I love my husband anymore," I told my counselor.
She just smiled and said, "Good!" What kind of counsel was this? Then with godly wisdom she said, "You can't love Brian with your own love like you used to. Now that Christ lives in you, you need to learn to love him with the love of Jesus. God has you right where he wants you."
Although it didn't happen overnight, I began to see Brian as God must have seen me before I accepted Jesus seven years ago: a lost soul in need of his grace. God allowed my salvation first as a model for the rest of my family. What a privilege!
It's not always easy and I certainly don't profess to have all the answers. However, through prayer, Scripture, and wise counsel, I've come to a place of renewed love and respect for Brian. After many years of trying to change him, I realized it wasn't my husband who needed to change; it was me! Certainly I've made many mistakes in this spiritual classroom called my home, but with God's wisdom, I've also learned some valuable lessons.
Lesson #1. My husband's salvation is for him, not me.
I prayed and prayed for Brian to accept Christ without even realizing the selfishness of my prayers. After all, it would be much easier for me. We'd go to church together, have the same friends, and be more like-minded. But James 4:3 tells us: "When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with the wrong motives."
Praying for Brian to be saved for his sake and not mine has relieved a burden of unrealistic expectations and has created a more righteous prayer life. Now my hope doesn't lie in Brian's salvation, but in God's assured willingness to grant it.
Lesson #2. His salvation is not my job. It's the Holy Spirit's.
Brian doesn't want to be my project; he wants to be the desire of my heart! Besides, God wants him to be saved more than I could ever desire. The Bible says, "[The Lord] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9, italics added).
But my patience was tested time and again! I silently became angry when Brian declined my Sunday invitations, and I felt so alone at church functions. It frustrated me that he didn't support my ministry or want to participate in my newfound passions. Even now, I just want him to know the joy I feel. But that's something I can't give him. That's God's job, and his alone.
It's not my fault Brian doesn't walk with the Lord, and I've finally accepted that. I can pray for him, encourage him, and weep for him, but I can never be responsible for him. God's plan is far greater than mine, and every so often I sense God saying, Hang in there, beloved. Patience! He's mine.
Lesson #3. He still needs to be a priority.
My focus changed dramatically when I became a Christian, and the activities we once shared together no longer seemed a priority compared to my service to Christ. As in any marriage, greater demands were also being placed on us by our growing children and ever increasing work schedules, making it almost impossible for us to connect. I hate to admit it, but Brian moved to about fifth on my priority list.
Unfortunately, sex wasn't a priority either. For more than 13 years I suffered from a condition called vaginismus, which made intercourse painful and eventually impossible. Brian felt rejected and lonely through those years, and it was an obvious strain on our marriage. Although it was a long ordeal, I recently overcame this elusive disorder by using a mind/body treatment program mixed with a lot of prayer. Vaginismus is something we had to overcome together, and that process has healed our marriage on many levels. Sex is now a priority that connects us physically, emotionally, and yes, spiritually. Even if he doesn't pray during sex, I do! I thank God for his healing and pray for his blessing in our most intimate moments. Who knows? Maybe sex is the best witness I have of God's healing power … and Brian isn't complaining.
Finding areas of common ground between us sometimes is a struggle, but I know it's crucial to find a balance between being attentive to his priorities while continuing to grow as a Christian woman. The Lord knows my heart and I trust he will help me walk the fine line between reverence to him and honor to my husband.
Lesson #4. He doesn't understand my "new" language, and that can distance us.
When I became a Christian, my vocabulary changed. I learned a lot of "Christianese," which only frustrated Brian when he heard it. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 2:14-15, "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned."
In essence, this Scripture says we now speak different languages and that doesn't make for good communication. I've learned not to speak "Christianese" or dazzle him with biblical knowledge. Instead, I ask God to provide creative ways to share my faith in every day conversations.
For instance, when I say, "God is number one in my life," that's a very threatening statement to an unsaved spouse. Brian's reaction was, "Great! What about me and the kids?" Since Brian loves biking, I told him God is like the hub of a wheel and all the other aspects of my life are the spokes. If it weren't for the strength of the hub holding the spokes in place, the wheel would fly apart much like my life if God weren't my hub. He understood this illustration without feeling replaced and I clearly emphasized God's centrality in my life.
Brian still doesn't go to church or attend Bible study. He still changes the radio station every time we get in the car. But he better understands the importance of God's centrality in my life, and I understand his need for my attention and respect. Whatever God is doing in Brian's life is between him and a very personal Savior. I cling tightly to the biblical promise that says, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household" (Acts 16:31). In the meantime, I'm thankful for the miracle of a lighter yoke.
Kathy Cordell is a writer, speaker, founder of Women of Worship (www.wow4him.org) and owner of Freedom Steps Life Coaching (www.freedomsteps.org). She lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming, with her husband and two children.